Donation point for Afghan refugees a testament to public’s generosity

Behind the doors of an unassuming building in Essex, bin liners and plastic bags are piled so high they are almost within touching distance of the ceiling.

In them are thousands of donations to individuals and families seeking refuge in the UK from Afghanistan’s new Taliban regime.

It’s difficult to step forward without tripping over boxes of Lego and board games, or pairs of children’s shoes spilling out of a precariously balanced bag for life.

Staff and volunteers at storage facilities in Essex are working tirelessly to sift through these countless items, ready for families who are either stuck in quarantine, or adjusting to life in “bridging” hotels as they wait for more suitable accommodation to be identified.

Residents were so quick to act that Essex County Council paused their appeal for donations only six days after announcing it.

Warm clothes, shoes, toiletries and other essentials make up the bulk of the stock, since these were the items specifically asked for by the county council, and are stacked methodically to the sides of the room.

However, this hasn’t stopped a few rogue items from being sent – volunteers said they were surprised to find someone had donated a bikini.

“We did also have a pair of wedding hats, which were beautiful,” British Red Cross Emergency Response Officer Jess Mason said.

“All donations are welcome but at the time obviously that was a bit more frustrating because we had asked for warm clothing.

“But the baby items were fantastic, you know spot on to the Essex public for that.”

A British Red Cross Ranger being loaded with donations to be delivered from a donation point in Essex

Ms Mason is the only paid member of staff in her team in Essex. She heads a group of volunteers who sort and prepare the stock, ready so it can be delivered.

The mountain of unsorted liners is gradually whittled down into piles of men’s and women’s clothing, toys, toiletries, baby items and shoes.

The volunteers themselves are experienced and have been through a strict programme of training to help them deal with the emotional effects of working with the families, many of whom have experienced trauma before coming to the UK.

These emergency response teams were first on the scene when the families arrived in their quarantine hotels.

A needs assessment was done with each individual family to find out what they were in dire need of, before the county council launched its appeal.

But before the donations first arrived, the British Red Cross was relying on its own funds to provide aid for the refugees.

Ms Mason said: “The very first few days, before we had the donations, we were using our own resources, which are limited.

“We do have funds that are available to spend on these families, again when things go back into retail those funds get replaced and replenished, so we were going to the local supermarket with our funding card, buying baby milk and nappies, because that was the absolute most emergency need.”

At this initial stage, items for babies such as powdered milk, clothes, nappies and other toiletries were in such high demand they initially bypassed storage and sorting and went straight to the families.

Ms Mason continued: “Delivering the donations that we’ve received was an absolute lifeline for them because it was direct to them, they can go out.

“A lot of the initial donations, the baby stuff and the toiletries and the baby clothes, went straight to the families.

“They didn’t even come to storage at all, they went straight there because those sort of things are needed week in week out.”

Now, many of the donations will sit and wait for further need to be identified.

Some of the families have up to seven children, all living in the same hotel room, Ms Mason said, adding there is barely enough space for them, let alone an excess of donated items.

Toys, however, have been particularly well received, not only helping with the boredom of hotel living but allowing children who have been through so much at such a young age to play and return to normal childhood activities.

“I got sent a picture of a little boy holding a firetruck and the grin on his face was just fantastic,” Ms Mason added.

“So the fact that the toys were needed to help alleviate the boredom of families being trapped in a hotel room, we hear stories of that but there are so many more hurdles rather than good stories unfortunately.”

Surplus items, such as the bikini and wedding hats, are being put into the retail arm of the British Red Cross. The money generated is then used to buy items more immediately in demand.

Ms Mason said: “For instance some of the new families that have arrived have got brand new babies and they’ll need a moses basket.

“We don’t have a Moses basket donated and being very careful with a newborn you would like a brand new mattress, etc.”

She later added: “The British public are brilliant when there’s an appeal, absolutely brilliant, but usually an appeal lasts quite a lot longer, which is probably why people were a bit perplexed that we stopped it so quickly.

“It’s because people were so quick.”

The Government said in August it will resettle 5,000 Afghan refugees nationwide by the end of 2021 and 20,000 over five years.

Several districts in Essex have committed to the government’s Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy (ARAP) or Afghan Citizens’ Resettlement Scheme (ACRS).

Essex County Council said in a statement it would update residents when “donation points are ready to begin receiving donations again.”

But as more families arrive, their needs are likely to be met with the generosity of residents and the determination of those working on the frontline.

Charlie Ridler

Local Democracy Reporter